The Making of a Latino Gay Movement

One reason Proyecto P.A.P.I. never got flak is that the city health department funded its campaign and put the billboards up, so no private company was involved. But the consortium, with no city money, had to deal with Infinity and its corporate homophobia. "It's not over for us," says Charles Rice-González, the consortium's publicist. Its next round of bus-shelter ads targets trannies, youngsters, and the elderly. "These people on the fringes of the gay community are the ones who need our services, and we're not gonna shy away from trying to reach them."

There's one ray of light in this struggle. The Bronx is a borough where, as Rice-González notes, "there are as many churches as bodegas." Clergymen are powerful figures here, and they have long been the bane of gay activists. "We had a march years ago for a transvestite who was murdered, and the church was against it," Rice-González recalls. "They clashed with us when Ruben Diaz Sr. [a homophobic minister] was appointed to the Civilian Complaint Review Board." But not a single church supported the decision to remove the ad. "The only person who backed Infinity was the transportation commissioner."

Too hot for the Bronx? This ad was pulled from bus shelters, prompting protests from activists and silence from most pols.
Too hot for the Bronx? This ad was pulled from bus shelters, prompting protests from activists and silence from most pols.

On the other hand, not a single politician—except for Freddie Ferrer—stepped forward to back the consortium. [See sidebar.] Nor did the City Council's two gay people of color, Margarita Lopez and Phil Reed, appear at the consortium's press conferences. Reed's absence was especially glaring, since he ran as a gay man with HIV and promised to represent that constituency. An aide told the Voice that Reed had been unable to attend because he was leaving town on vacation. Lopez did not return several phone calls (an aide explained that she was busy campaigning). Lisa Winters, the consortium's founder, notes that she never reached out to these two councilmembers. But after the story was widely reported, Tom Duane, a gay state senator, reached out to her. "He asked what he could do, and he and Christine Quinn [a gay councilmember from Greenwich Village] got their butts right up here."

The real villain here could be fear more than loathing. Lopez and Reed both represent heavily Hispanic districts, and they may feel a need to prove that their sexuality doesn't threaten traditional values. For that matter, Infinity may have been moved by undue apprehension about the complaints it received (only between two and five people objected, according to the consortium). But on the ground, there's a more complex reality, in which bigotry coexists with solidarity. Castellanos tells an instructive story: The men in his group's billboard were volunteers, not models, and one of them effectively came out when his image loomed over his neighborhood. "All his friends congratulated him for his courage," Castellanos says. "His life completely changed."

The homophobia and sexual secrecy that come with machismo cannot be denied. But there's another Latino tradition embodied in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, one of the few ethnic celebrations that never had a problem with maricones marching under their own banner. This spirit of fusion and inclusion bodes well for gay Latinos, especially if they ally with other progressive forces. Already a lesbian-led group is forming to educate all Latina women about the political process. If women awaken to their power, all the assumptions about Hispanic culture are up for grabs.

But nothing breeds rigidity like poverty, and right now Latinos are the poorest New Yorkers. So the struggle for gay Latinos is entwined with the fortunes of their entire community. The solution is spelled out by the acronym in Proyecto P.A.P.I.'s name: P for poder (power), A for ayuda (support), P for prevención, I for identidad. But since this is New York, let's add another crucial letter: V for visibilidad.

Plus: Find out what the mayoral candidates think about the bus shelter flap.

Research: Ben Silverbush

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